October 10, 2021 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
In 1993, former president Jimmy Carter presented the commencement address to the graduating class at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He shared the story of a young college first year student who overslept for the final exam in geometry and pleaded for mercy from his professor. The professor granted it – sort of. “If you provide an accurate answer for one question, I will submit a passing grade for you.” the professor said. Without much choice, the student agreed. Here is the question: “If I give you a barometer, how can you use it to determine the height of this building?”
The student smiled, and then began, “Well, there are several ways. I could tie the barometer to a rope, lower it from the roof to the ground, and measure the length of the rope. Or I could drop the barometer, time its fall, and multiply the time by 32 feet per second. Or, I could find the building superintendent and say, ‘If you tell me the height of this building, I’ll give you this cool barometer.’ OR, if you want the conventional method, I could measure the barometric pressure at the base of the building, and again on the roof, and subtract to find the difference, thereby determining the building’s height.” — The student passed.
Our Scripture text from Mark’s Gospel offers us a similar snapshot of a final exam. A young man approaches Jesus and asks him the essential question of life. “Master, what must I do to gain eternal life?” What’s the standard? What will be on the final exam? It was a trick question, as was so often the case when the religious people spoke to Jesus. But this man was quite sincere in his effort to know what God required; he was a real, live, first-century “seeker.”
Jesus’ initial response, from our perspective, was a rather shocking answer; the company line of Judaism, if you will. “You know the commandments; don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother.” And while the young man’s answer may sound braggadocios, it is clear that his pursuit is genuine. “Teacher ever since I was a child, I have obeyed all the commandments. So what else?” And I love the way Luke tells the story:
“Jesus looked him hard in the eye – and loved him! He said, (and here’s the final exam!) “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.” And Luke concludes in this way: “The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.’”
But the teachable moment is not over; Jesus turns to the disciples and tells them how hard it is for so many to enter the Kin-dom of God, saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those who are rich by earthly standards to enter the Kin-dom of God.”
“Then who can do it?” the disciples wondered. Jesus reminds the disciples of what they already knew . . . “For mere mortals, it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”
Let’s review: The young man wants to gain God’s approval and go to heaven, but how can he be certain? Follow the commandments. Been there, done that, he tells Jesus. Okay, here’s something you haven’t done: Give away your wealth. And the rich man blinked. And he balked!
All his life, he had been taught to believe that the way to the kin-dom is through good works. But somehow, the young man assumed that there must be something else; why otherwise would he have asked his question of Jesus? “I’ve done all the things required by the law, but is there something else, Jesus?” Jesus peered into the man’s heart and saw that he loved his wealth more than all else, and that became the one thing necessary. No amount of good works, kind deeds, or passionate prayers could accomplish this; the man must choose between his wealth and his eternity. And he made his choice.
Friends, we have met the rich young man, and he is us! We make choices in our lives every day as to how we will live our lives, and there is a consistency in our choices. Some of us regularly choose to protect our wealth, others make choices to guard popularity, and for others, it is a choice involving social status, academic achievements, or physical appearance. If we take inventory of our lives, each of us would likely find that “one thing” of which Jesus spoke. And if we take this vignette at face value, it becomes for us a crossroads in our lives, the mother of all final exams! Jesus looks at us in love and says, “Give it up (you fill in the blank) and you will have riches in heaven!”
But here’s the loophole: The man was asking Jesus what he could do to gain eternal life, so Jesus gave him the answer. “If you want to do something, here’s what you can do. But there is another way!” The whole of scripture tells us that we do not gain the kin-dom by what we do, but rather, by what Christ has done. God’s grace in faith in Christ is sufficient. The work Jesus did on the cross brings forgiveness; the promise of the empty tomb is resurrection. It is ours by faith…not by works.
And then what seems to be a footnote of Jesus’ conversation with the man is actually the explanation of the dilemma. What is the lesson that Jesus taught his disciples? “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven.” “Then it’s impossible!” the disciples exclaimed. “Not for God!” And that’s the nugget of the story. That what is impossible for us to do, God has already done. That what was a hopeless conundrum for the rich young man was solved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In a sense, our lives are not so different from this first-century Jew. We want it all! We want our things, we want peace, we want love, joy, freedom, and of course, we want the promise of eternal life. Personally, I think this “you can have it all” theology is nonsense, but most of us are smitten with it. How can we live our lives within this craziness? Let me propose a beginning point, trusting that it will cause each of us to examine the priorities of our lives.
The kingdom of heaven is ours – period – end of story. If we believe that Jesus is Savior, then that final exam has been graded, and we all got an “A”! How then shall we live our lives? If the most important question of our existence has been decided, why do we fret over stuff, power, control, petty differences? Because somewhere in the recesses of our minds, we think this life on earth might be all there is, so we should grab for the prizes while we can. But if the ultimate prize is already ours, I wonder why the things of this world are so important.
Rhonda VanDyke Colby gives us the account of three-year-old Crystal’s mother hearing the cry from the other room, “Mommy, I’m stuck!” And Crystal came running to her mother holding in one hand her great grandmother’s vase. The other hand couldn’t be seen. It was stuck inside the vase.
Crystal’s mother tried to move quickly without panicking. Holding the vase and her little girl, she carried Crystal to the kitchen sink. She used warm soapy water to try to loosen the toddler’s hand, which was indeed stuck. When soap didn’t work, she reached for the butter. While greasing her child’s wrist like a cake pan, she asked the obvious “mother question.” “How in the world did you do this?” Crystal, now crying, explained that she dropped candy down into the vase to see if she could still see it when it was at the very bottom of the vase. She couldn’t. When she reached in for her candy, she couldn’t get her hand back out.
The more time went on, the more serious the whole situation became. Mother called grandmother to come over and help assess the situation. A neighbor suggested Vaseline. The apartment manager got the WD-40. Still no luck. It seemed like the only way to get the child’s hand out was to break the heirloom, an option that made Crystal start to wail.
Grandma arrived with her calming presence and went over to Crystal, who was very upset and still very stuck. “Sweetheart,” Grandma said gently, “Mommy says you reached in the vase for candy. Is that right?”
“Mmm hmm,” the child whimpered, still breathless from crying. “Honey, tell Grandma the truth now. Do you still have ahold of that candy?” “Mmm hmm,” Crystal sobbed. The grandmother patter her back to comfort her. “Let it go, child. Let it go.” The vase slipped off as smooth as silk.
So, let’s start at the beginning point of knowing that our eternity with God is secure. Perhaps that confidence will allow us to free up our grip on the things that we guard so carefully in this life, things that have no eternal value. With the knowledge of a secure future with God, other things are not quite so important: the favorite parking space here at the church, the treasure the neighbor’s dog left in the front yard, the trip cancelled, the disappointment of events not turning out the way we had expected. The Savior loves you, and claims you for eternity, and now YOU are FREE to LIVE! Class is over. Thanks be to God. Amen.